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24 Sep 2017

Toronto

By Gracie Carroll

The Giller Prize 2018 Shortlisted Authors On Their Nominated Novels

By Alexandra Donaldson

edit seven giller prize nominated novel author interviews

This year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist is full of literary gems. Having made my way through 4.5 of them (I’m currently devouring Songs For the Cold of Heart), each book offers up a completely individual story. In fact, all five of these novels are vastly different from each other, both in tone and content—but they are all stellar reads. If, like me, you love catching up on the best of Canadian fiction, this is your reading list for the next few weeks. You’ll definitely want to pick them up before the winner is announced on November 19, 2018.

French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

Patrick DeWitt FrenchExit Giller Prize 2018

This tongue-firmly-in-cheek story of a woman and her son who lose their fortune and then head to Paris to recoup touches on interesting family dynamics, upper class gossip and, surprisingly, the soul of a man in a cat.

Alexandra Donaldson: How did the idea for the book come to you?

Patrick DeWitt: There were a few different elements I wanted to address: the wealthy, how the mother-son relationship evolves after the son has arrived at adulthood, Paris. Also I wanted to give voice to Frances Price, my protagonist. All these things came together to make up the universe of French Exit.

AD: How personal is the book to you? How much of your own experience comes through?

PD: The story of the Price family couldn’t be farther away from my own familial experience, which is much more modest and grounded; but, a book has a way of sneaking up on an author, so that after it’s finished you discover you’ve exposed yourself in ways you didn’t necessarily mean to.

AD: What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your novel?

PD: I hope they are entertained, both on a surface and sub-surface level. I hope the characters live with them after the book is done. As much as anything, I hope my books encourage shade-tree readers to keep at it.

AD: Is there any scene or dialogue in the book that particularly stands out to you, or was difficult to write?

PD: The scenes on the cruise ship were a joy to write. The Parisian seance was not.

AD: Do you think there’s anything specific about Canadian writers and writing that sets it apart?

PD: Perhaps how unspecific we are? That is, how varied? That’s a difficult question!

AD: What was your favourite Canadian book this year?

PD: I just finished Miriam Towes’s Women Talking, which bowled me right over. It’s a stunning performance by Toews and I recommend it to anyone interested in the goods.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

EsiEdugyan Washington Black Giller Prize 2018

This novel is a saga, and takes you both across the globe and through the life of a young slave who finds himself grappling with his own sense of freedom and ambition.

Alexandra Donaldson: How did the idea for the book come to you?

Esi Edugyan: I had originally set out to write a novel about the Tichborne Claimant affair, which involved an infamous series of criminal trials in 1860s-1870s in England. A working-class man tried to claim the inheritance of wealthy young aristocrat by assuming his identity, despite there being utterly no similarities between them. One of the main witnesses for the defense was a man called Andrew Bogle. Bogle was an ex-slave who’d been stolen off a Jamaican plantation by a member of the Tichborne household. In trying to write the Claimant’s story through Bogle’s eyes, I realized I was less interested in the machinations of the trial than in the many psychological disruptions of Bogle’s journey from the Caribbean to an entirely new life in an unknown land.

AD: How personal is the book to you? How much of your own experience comes through?

EE: Given how deeply historical the novel is, and also the gender divide, I wouldn’t say it evolved much from personal experience. But I do acknowledge that every novel does express something of the spirit of its author, so that many of the larger questions the book poses are probably things I’m still, however unconsciously, struggling with myself. I certainly live with an awareness of racial inequality, of what it means to be viewed differently.

AD: What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your novel?

EE: A sense of having accompanied this young man on his journey to understanding himself as fully realized human being. And also a feeling of wonder and appreciation for the natural world.

AD: Is there any scene or dialogue in the book that particularly stands out to you, or was difficult to write?

EE: The earlier chapters dealing with the cruelties on the plantation posed the greatest challenge, emotionally.

AD: Do you think there’s anything specific about Canadian writers and writing that sets it apart?

EE: Like any world literature, Canadian literature is diverse and wide-ranging and not about any one thing — what sets it apart is the multiplicity of its many cultural voices.

AD: What was your favourite Canadian book this year?

EE: I haven’t had much time to read this year, but I really enjoyed Patrick Lane’s Deep River Night.

An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

Thea Lim An Ocean of Minutes Giller prize 2018

Not only is time travel possible, but it’s a way to pay the medical bills of your loved ones who have contracted a deadly flu-like virus sweeping the country. Which is the reason why Polly heads to the future while her boyfriend Frank stays behind.

Alexandra Donaldson: How did the idea for the book come to you?

Thea Lim: I was really just punning with myself. I had been thinking about how we manage loss – the strange and sometimes surreal way that life goes on, for everyone, no matter what we’ve lost – and I was thinking about how when someone is bereaved, they’re stuck in time. But grief is difficult to write about as a story, because it’s a passive state, not something that lends itself to a lot action. Then I thought, what if I actually stuck someone in time? And tadaa! I was writing a time travel novel.

AD: How personal is the book to you? How much of your own experience comes through?

TL: The book eventually turned into an immigration story, because when my protagonist Polly travels through time, she has many of the same experiences as people who make regular, geographic journeys. I didn’t intend to write about immigration, but when the story took that turn, I realized how much I had wanted to talk about my own experiences of dislocation – an experience which was a little out of the ordinary, in that I moved back and forth and back and forth with my family, until I was 19, when I immigrated to my own birth country (talk about strange). But I’d never really been able to figure out how to tell my story, until then. It’s funny how our unconscious finds a way to tell the stories that are festering in us, without us realizing it, until it’s too late.

AD: What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your novel?

TL: The book asks if it’s really better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all, and like most writers, I didn’t want to offer a hard yes or no to that question; I wanted to create a story that evoked a reader’s own answer. At the same time, especially at this point in time, I don’t want to create art that’s hopeless or bleak. So while I want readers to take whatever it is that is meaningful to them from the story, I also hope that they come away from it feeling that love and connection, while never easy, are still worth it.

AD: Is there any scene or dialogue in the book that particularly stands out to you, or was difficult to write?

TL: The first 50 pages! I must have rewritten them at least fifteen times.

AD: Do you think there’s anything specific about Canadian writers and writing that sets it apart?

TL: It’s hard to generalize, but one thing I’ve always loved about Canadian literature is the comfort with silence, and the common desire to excavate some unloved or unknown emotion or place or idea, and bring it into the light.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti Motherhood Giller prize 2018

A dialogue about whether or not to have a child dominates this novel that grapples with all of those internal questions about motherhood that many women have. What do you gain? What do you lose? And how do you know if it’s for you?

Alexandra Donaldson: How did the idea for the book come to you?

Sheila Heti: My boyfriend suggested I write this book.

AD: How personal is the book to you? How much of your own experience comes through?

SH: All my books are essentially personal. A book like this is a person in object form, and the experiences that come through are at once my real experiences, the life I imagined to write this book, and what I know of the lives of others.

AD: What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your novel?

SH: It doesn’t matter to me.

AD: Is there any scene or dialogue in the book that particularly stands out to you, or was difficult to write?

SH: I like the rhythm and logic of first two pages of the book the most, and that is why I put them first.

AD: Do you think there’s anything specific about Canadian writers and writing that sets it apart?

SH: Not that I can see. There is no such thing as Canadian writing.

AD: What was your favourite Canadian book this year?

SH: Sludge Utopia by Catherine Fatima. It is deeply emotional and philosophical and feels true to the wandering of a certain kind of restless, curious, intellectual woman in her early twenties.

Songs for the Cold of Heart by Eric Dupont

Eric Dupont Songs for the Cold of Heart Giller prize

This novel is a multi-generational tome that manages to be both magical and a great opportunity to explore more of the Quebec landscape. Keeping up with the Lamontagnes is for fans of Marquez and Sterne.

Alexandra Donaldson: How did the idea for the book come to you?

Eric Dupont: First, there was this story my father told me about a Gaspé girl who was sent to New York city to get an abortion in 1968. Then, there were other stories of people who were forced to embark on voyages they really could have done without, like my neighbor in East Berlin who fled the Red Army as the Wehrmacht retreated in 1944. The theme of the unwanted journey imposed itself very early on in this writing project.

AD: How personal is the book to you? How much of your own experience comes through?

ED: It is extremely personal. My mother gave me the costumes and the decor for the first third of the book. The characters live in places where I lived in the past. They read books I have read. These nuns, they were my teachers, my aunts, my family. Magda Berg, the German character, was inspired by a neighbour I had in Berlin. My characters sing lieder I had to learn in order to write this book.

AD: What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your novel?

ED: I’m never sure how I should answer this question. I’m just glad readers are buying books whether they are mine or not. It allows me to make a living doing what I love, telling stories. I cannot imagine a world without books or stories.

AD: Is there any scene or dialogue in the book that particularly stands out to you, or was difficult to write?

ED: Given the length of the novel, there are a few. I think the pages where Magda narrates the sinking of the Whilhelm Gustloff in January of 1945 remains my favourite, maybe because it was so demanding in terms of research and also because of the sadness associated with this event.

AD: Do you think there’s anything specific about Canadian writers and writing that sets it apart?

ED: I know French Canadian authors like strong female characters. Men are often absent in our books.

AD: What was your favourite Canadian book this year?

ED: I like to read poetry. I loved Uiesh – Quelque Part by Innu author Joséphine Bacon. She wrote these poems in French and translated them in the Innu language herself. I can’t read Innu, but the French poems, all very short, almost like haikus, are exquisite in their simplicity, in the way they say only what matters. I love how they bring me back to my snowy, windy, fabulous north.

xo

@EDITSEVEN

(Story by Contributing Editor, Alexandra Donaldson)

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